Faith-Based Facts

Faith-Based Facts

An assessment of the Bush administration's controversial "faith-based initiatives."

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“Debunking Charitable Choice: The Evidence Doesn’t Support the Political Left or Right” by Mark Chaves, in Stanford Social Innovation Review (Summer 2003), Stanford Graduate School of Business, 518 Memorial Way, Stanford, Calif. 94305–5015.

The Bush administration has championed “faith-based initiatives” to increase the flow of government dollars to grassroots religious organizations that help the needy, arguing that their charitable efforts are more intense and more effective than government programs. Yet, these advocates say, faith-based nonprofits often get short shrift when public funds are given out.

The reality is very different, argues Chaves, a sociologist at the University of Arizona and principal investigator in a study of national religious congregations. There’s very little discrimination against religious groups in the competition for government grants and contracts. “In a few cases, overzealous bureaucrats have demanded that Catholic hospitals remove crucifixes or the Salvation Army refrain from using the word ‘salvation,” according to Chaves. But over the decades, thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of grants and contracts have gone to religious organizations, large and small. Catholic Charities gets about 60 percent of its funds from government sources, and the Salvation Army about 20 percent.

Nor is the typical religious congregation deeply involved in aiding the downtrodden, Chaves points out. “Only six percent of congregations have a staff person devoting at least quarter time to social service projects.” Clergy, according to time-use studies, spend minimal hours on community activities of any sort. And in 80 percent of the congregations making an effort, no more than 30 volunteers are involved over the course of a year.

Advocates of faith-based initiatives claim that, in President George W. Bush’s words, “faith can move people in ways that government can’t”—and opponents fear that that might happen with government support. But “transformed souls and religious conversions” are hardly likely, says Chaves, when even churches, synagogues, and mosques heavily involved in providing social services seldom integrate their “clients” into their congregations.

Usually, congregations simply address individuals’ immediate needs—for food (33 percent of congregations have food-related projects), housing (18 percent), or clothing (11 percent). And when congregations and other religious groups seek to do more than that, they often must turn to government agencies and secular nonprofits. They are not an alternative to that world, Chaves says. They are part of it.

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